Monday, March 3, 2014
Review: The Frangipani Hotel
hardcover, 256 pages
Speigel & Grau
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
The best of Violet Kupersmith's short stories create a kind of prickling sensation along the reader's arms...or maybe the back of her neck. The Frangipani Hotel is a debut collection of stories by Violet Kupersmith, a Mount Holyoke graduate who spent a postgraduate year teaching and conducting research in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. The daughter of an American father and a former boat refugee from Vietnam, Kupersmith blends tales of the spirit world with contemporary realism in these stunning and witty stories.
"Boat story" opens the collection, and sets the tone for The Frangipani Hotel: a high school student is interviewing her grandmother for a school project; she asks her grandmother for a "boat story." The grandmother asks: "You really want to know the country you came from?"..."And you want a story about me on a boat?" The grandmother then proceeds to tell a supernatural story, one that gives the listener "everything you need to know...The first rule of the country we came from is that it always gives you what you ask for, but never exactly what you want."
The stories in Kupersmith's collection combine the mundane and the ghostly in ways that can be humorous, chilling, or both. In "Reception," a young man finds a break from the tedium of working in his uncle's hotel when he finds an unregistered guest in one of the rooms: it is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, resting in an overflowing bathtub, lapping at the water with her little pink tongue. The discovery of who or what this woman really is leads the young man to confront his past, and the past of his country.
One of my favorite stories in The Frangipani Hotel is "Guests." In this story a bored and self-absorbed young American living and working in Ho Chi Minh City confronts the mystery and mixed loyalties of her own place in Vietnam, as well as the colliding cultures (she doesn't seem to fit into either). "Split Mia," as she calls herself at one point in the story, works in the immigration department of the U.S. Consulate, filing dual citizenship requests for mothers who claim their children have been fathered by Americans. What happens in the story can't be entirely explained but leaves a curious feeling of karma.
In The Frangipani Hotel people easily turn into snakes or serpent women; much that happens is inexplicable and deeply unsettling, and yet the two worlds--the spirit world and the material world--seem seamless. This collection is filled with beautifully told tales that have the mark of a talented writer. Highly recommended for readers of stories, and those who are interested in the meeting of cultures.